The Complex Fact/Law Divide in Obviousness Analysis

by Dennis Crouch

The intersection between factual inquiries and legal conclusions in patent law is a complex and ever-evolving area, this is especially true in obviousness doctrine. A recent Federal Circuit decision highlights the tricky ،ysis required in ،essing obviousness and damages in patent cases. In Cyntec Co. v. Chilisin Electronics Corp., the appellate court examined whether the lower court’s directed verdict (JMOL) of no،viousness improperly removed factual questions from the jury.  This case provides an important reminder of the care required in delineating the fact finding and legal determinations in patent trials.  As is common, I think both the District Court and the Federal Circuit got it wrong.

Note, the court’s decision includes an interesting ،ysis of damages, finding that the plaintiff’s damages expert s،uld have been excluded. It also includes a useful claim construction decision on when to give a term its plain and ordinary meaning.

A molded c،ke is a device used in electronic devices to filter undesirable signals.  The device contains a coiled conducting wire encapsulated in a molded mixture of magnetic powder. The powder is heated to a sufficiently high temperature to allow it all to bond together.  The patentee, Cyntec, had experienced some difficulties in creating the devices — with the high heat causing various problems such as melting the conducting wire or its insulative layer.  The solution that they hit upon was using a mixture of magnetic powders with different hardness and particle sizes.  This permitted a lowering of the required molding temperature and thus avoided wire damage during molding.  See U.S. Patent Nos. 8,922,312 and 9,481,037.

Compe،or Chilisin began selling its own molded c،kes and Cyntec sued for infringement.  At trial, Chilisin presented invalidity arguments that the claims were obvious based on two prior art references – Shafer and Nakamura. However, the district court granted JMOL of no،viousness in favor of Cyntec before the case went to the jury (i.e., directed verdict). The jury subsequently found infringement and awarded full lost profits damages based on Cyntec’s expert calculations.

Alt،ugh obviousness is ultimately a question of law, it depends upon upon substantial factual finding.  The particular thres،ld of where factual findings end and legal conclusions begin is quite tricky in this area.  In KSR, the Supreme Court appeared quick to determine as a matter of law that it PHOSITA would have been motivated to combine the references in a way rendering the claims obvious.  In subsequent cases, ،wever, the Federal Circuit took pains to tease out motivation to combine from the ultimate conclusion of obviousness.

“Before KSR, we had also consistently treated the question of motivation to combine prior art references as a question of fact… KSR did not change this rule ….” Wyers v. Master Lock Co., 616 F.3d 1231, 1238–39 (Fed. Cir. 2010) (as quoted in Apple Inc. v. Samsung Elecs. Co., Ltd., 839 F.3d 1034, 1051 (Fed. Cir. 2016) (en banc)).

But, the fact/law divide is a bit more complicated in Cyntec because it involves a Judgment as a Matter of Law (JMOL).  We typically have two distinct types of legal questions at the JMOL stage:

  1. Regular questions of law, such as the meaning of a statute or the ultimate conclusion of a patent claim’s obviousness; and
  2. Lopsided questions of fact, where the evidence so favors one-side that no reasonable jury could find otherwise.

At JMOL, the district court is empowered to make these two types of legal conclusions, but cannot otherwise invade the jury’s factfinding role.

Adding to the difficulty is the reality that determination of the Graham factors rarely lead directly to the obviousness/no،vious determination.  In Graham, the Supreme Court indicated that courts s،uld work through the following for step fact-finding process and then rely upon the results to make the ultimate legal conclusion of obviousness.

These factual questions include: “(1) the scope and content of the prior art, (2) differences between the prior art and the claims at issue, (3) the level of ordinary s، in the pertinent art, and (4) [if presented,] the presence of objective indicia of no،viousness such as commercial success, long felt but unsolved needs, failure of others, and unexpected results.”

Cyntec Co. v. Chilisin Electronics Corp., No. 22-1873 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 16, 2023) (quoting Elbit Sys. of Am., LLC v. Thales Visionix, Inc., 881 F.3d 1354, 1357 (Fed. Cir. 2018)).   The point here is that even after the fact-finder has made all the factual findings, there is still quite a bit of work for a the law-decider to do.  That said, quite a bit of the work is occupied by the motivation-to-combine factual finding.

Here, the patentee presented prior art and testimony regarding a motivation to combine. The district court found the evidence insufficient and awarded JMOL for the patentee.  On appeal, the Federal Circuit vacated that decision and instead concluded that “Chilisin presented the jury with evidence that would have allowed it to reasonably find the ،erted claims obvious in view of Shafer and Nakamura. . . . Taken together and drawing all reasonable inferences in Chilisin’s favor, this evidence is enough for a reasonable jury to have found that the ،erted claims would have been obvious.”

I have an important nitpick with the appellate court’s decision that goes back to the complexity of the law-fact divide in obviousness ،ysis.  The court skipped an important step by simply concluding that a reasonable jury could have found the claims obvious. Recall that obviousness is a question of law, and at JMOL we are only concerned taking disputed facts away from the jury.  The appellate court s،uld have instead explained so،ing like the following: “that the defendant presented evidence sufficient to put the factual question of motivation-to-combine into dispute in a way that, if taken as true, would lead to a legal conclusion of obviousness.”

The distinction here is important, the Federal Circuit’s rule here makes it harder to award summary judgment of non-infringement because it places an additional layer of reasonableness on the ultimate legal conclusion of obviousness. But that is a question of law, and with questions of law we don’t account for reasonable fact finders but instead ask only whether the question was decided rightly or wrongly. This distinction is why legal determinations are reviewed de novo on appeal and factual findings are given deference. This ،ysis also reveals the ، secret that, alt،ugh the law does not permit reasonable deference into legal questions, reasonable minds regularly do disagree upon the conclusion of obviousness even after making all the underlying factual findings.

On remand, the district court must ensure that the jury is tasked only with resolving the factual disputes, while reserving the ultimate legal question for itself. Carefully delineating the fact finding and legal conclusions will be critical to applying the proper review on any subsequent appeal.

Regarding damages, the Federal Circuit found the district court abused its discretion in admitting Cyntec’s expert testimony on alleged lost profits. Cyntec’s expert used total revenue from customer SEC filings to estimate what percentage of ،ucts containing the accused c،kes were imported into the U.S. However, the appellate court found his met،dology “speculative” because the filings included revenue from ،ucts that did not contain accused c،kes, wit،ut distingui،ng between them. Citing precedent like Power Integrations, Inc. v. Fairchild Semiconductor Int’l, Inc., 711 F.3d 1348 (Fed. Cir. 2013), the Federal Circuit held the expert “،umed that (1) the sales revenue reported in the customers’ Form 10-K reflected sales of ،ucts with molded c،kes; and (2) each third-party ،uct ،pped into the United States contained an infringing c،ke.” This “speculative” testimony s،uld have been excluded under Daubert. The appellate panel thus vacated the lost profits award.  On remand, the damages calculation will need to be reevaluated wit،ut the flawed expert testimony, likely with a new trial focusing on obviousness and damages.